John looked this way and that again and lowered his voice so that Isaac had to lean close to hear him at all. “Perhaps it would be as well if they did stay. I wonder,” he went on wistfully, “if the young man with them truly is Maurice’s son Theodosios. Even with Persian backing, he would be better than Phokas.”
“No, John.” The abbot shook his head in grim certainty. “I am sure Theodosios is dead; he was with his father when Phokas overthrew them. And while the new emperor has many failings, no one can doubt his talent as a butcher.”
“True enough.” John sighed. “Well, then, Father Abbot, why not welcome the Persians as liberators from the tyrant?”
“Because of what I heard from a traveler out of the east who took shelter with us last night. He was from a village near Daras, where the Persians have now decided how they will govern the lands they have taken from the empire. He told me they were beginning to make the Christians thereabouts become Nestorians.”
“I had not heard that, Father Abbot,” John said, adding a moment later, “Filthy heresy!”
“Not to the Persians. They exalt Nestorians above all other Christians, trusting their loyalty because we who hold to the right belief have persecuted them so they may no longer live within the empire.” Isaac sadly shook his head. “All too often, that trust has proved justified.”
“What shall we do, then?” John asked. “I will not abandon the faith, but in truth I would sooner serve the Lord as a living monk than as a martyr, though His will be done, of course.” He crossed himself.
So did Isaac. His eyes twinkled. “I do not blame you, my son. I have lived most of my life, so I am ready to see God and His Son face to face whenever He desires, but I understand how younger men might hesitate. Some, to save their lives, might even bow to heresy and forfeit their souls. I think, therefore, that we should abandon Ir-Ruhaiyeh so no one will have to face this bitter choice.”
John whistled softly. “As bad as that?” His glance slid to the monk in the garden, who had looked up but went back to his weeding when the prior’s eye fell on him.
“As bad as that,” Isaac echoed. “I need you to begin drawing up plans for our withdrawal. I want us to leave no later than a week from today.”
“So soon, Father Abbot? As you wish, of course; you know you have my obedience. Shall I arrange for our travel west to Antioch or south to Damascus? I presume you will want us safe behind a city’s walls.”
“Yes, but neither of those,” the abbot said. John stared at him in surprise. Isaac went on. “I doubt Damascus is strong enough to stand against the storm that is rising. And Antioch- Antioch is all in commotion since the Jews rose and murdered the patriarch, may God smile upon him. Besides, the Persians are sure to make for it, and it can fall. I was a tiny boy the last time it did; the sack, I have heard, was ghastly. I would not want us caught up in another such.”
“What then, Father Abbot?” John asked, puzzled now.
“Ready us to travel to Constantinople, John. If Constantinople falls to the Persians, surely it could only portend the coming of the Antichrist and the last days of the world. Even that may come. I find it an evil time to be old.”
“Constantinople. The city.” John’s voice held awe and longing. From the Pillars of Herakles to Mesopotamia, from the Danube to Nubia, all through the Roman Empire, Constantinople was the city. Every man dreamed of seeing it before he died. The prior ran fingers through his beard. His eyes went distant as he began to think of what the monks would need to do to get there. He never noticed Isaac walking away.
What did call him back to his surroundings was the monk leaving the herb garden a few minutes later. Had the fellow simply passed by, John would have paid him no mind. But he was humming as he walked, which disturbed the prior’s thoughts.
“Silence, Brother,” John said reprovingly.
The monk dipped his head in apology. Before he had gone a dozen paces, he was humming again. John rolled his eyes in rueful despair. Taking the music from that one was the next thing to impossible, for it came upon him so strongly that it possessed him without his even realizing it.
Had he not produced such lovely hymns, the prior thought, people might have used the word “possessed” in a different sense. But no demon, surely, could bring forth glowing praise of the Trinity and the Archangel Gabriel.
John dismissed the monk from his mind. He had many more important things to worry about.
“A nomisma for that donkey, that piece of crow bait?” The monk clapped a hand to his tonsured pate in theatrical disbelief. “A goldpiece? You bandit, may Satan lash you with sheets of fire and molten brass for your effrontery! Better you should ask for thirty pieces of silver. That would only be six more, and would show you for the Judas you are!”
After fierce haggling the monk ended up buying the donkey for ten silver pieces, less than half the first asking price. As the trader put the jingling miliaresia into his pouch, he nodded respectfully to his recent opponent. “Holy sir, you are the finest bargainer I ever met at a monastery.”
“I thank you.” Suddenly the monk was shy, not the fierce dickerer he had seemed a moment before. Looking down to the ground, he went on. “I was a merchant one before I found the truth of Christ.”
The trader laughed. “I might have known.” He monk a shrewd once-over. “From out of the south, I’d guess, by your accent.”
“Just so.” The monk’s eyes were distant, remembering. “I was making my first run up to Damascus. I heard a monk preaching in the marketplace. I was not even a Christian at the time, but it seemed to me that I heard within methe voice of the Archangel Gabriel saying, ‘Follow!’ And follow I have, all these years since. My caravan went back without me.”
“A strong call to the faith indeed, holy sir,” the trader said, crossing himself. “But if you ever wish to return to the world, seek me out. For a reasonable share of the profits I know you will bring in, I would be happy to stake you as a merchant again.”
The monk smiled, teeth white against tanned, dark skin and gray-streaked black beard. “Thank you, but I am content and more than content with my life as it is. Inshallah-“ He laughed at himself. “Here I’ve been working all these years to use only Greek, and recalling what I once was makes me forget myself so easily. Theou thelontos, I should have said-God willing-I would have spent all my days here at Ir-Ruhaiyeh. But that is not to be.”
“No.” The trader looked east. No smoke darkened the horizon there, not yet, but both men could see it in their minds eyes. “I may find a new home for myself, as well.”
“God grant you good fortune,” the monk said.
“And you, holy sir. If I have more beasts to sell, be sure I shall look for a time when you are busy elsewhere.
“Spoken like a true thief,” the monk said. They both laughed. The monk led the donkey away toward the stables. They were more crowded now than at any other time he could recall, with horses, camels, and donkeys. Some the monks would ride; others would carry supplies and the monastery’s books and other holy gear.
Words and music filled the monk’s mind as he walked toward the refectory. By now the words came more often in Greek than in his native tongue, but this time, perhaps because his haggle with the merchant had cast his memory back to the distant pagan days he did not often think of anymore, the idea washed over him in the full guttural splendor of his birth speech.
Sometimes he crafted a hymn line by line, word by word, fighting against stubborn ink and papyrus until the song had the shape he wanted. He was proud of the songs he shaped that way. They were truly his.
Sometimes, though, it was as if he saw the entire shape of a hymn complete at once. Then the praises to the Lord seemed almost to write themselves, his pen racing over the page not as an instrument of his own intelligence but rather as a channel through which God spoke for Himself. Those hymns were the ones for which the monk had gained a reputation that reached beyond Syria. He often wondered if he had earned it. God deserved more credit than he did. But then, he would remind himself, that was true in all things.